It wasn’t a vacation so much as a work trip to St. Louis, Missouri for the National Conference on Addiction Disorders, where Max’s boss sent us to get ideas for marketing and blog posts. Our late registration made it too difficult to get a flight, so we drove and made a vacation of it, stopping overnight in Indianapolis and wandering through GenCon, one of the largest gaming conferences in the nation, then stopping in Louisville and Cincinnati on the return trip, simply because we’d never been there.
Oh marvel of misfits, oh confluence of nerds. How happy I was to see you walking freely in your freak, safely buffered by your own kind. You are not alone. I wish I had known you in high school. I wish I had had the knowledge, the courage, the permission to dabble in weird with others instead of sitting alone with my fantasy books, enraptured and lonely.
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, St. Louis
This grammatically baffling and startlingly pricey chain was new to me, but when I bit into the most tenderly succulent salmon I’ve ever eaten, I forgave the extra $9 we had to pay for mashed potatoes to go with it. I have a good job and now you have a good job, Max reminded me when we got the bill. We are upwardly mobile.
Fountain parks, St. Louis
You’re allowed to play in the fountains. Let me repeat that. You’re allowed to play in the fountains. And fountains are everywhere! Fountains and statues and statues in fountains and spigots spurting water from the pavement in rows and kids in swimsuits running, wading, splashing, kids climbing on and in the sculpture of the severed head, peeking out its eye-holes, or clinging to the legs of the water nymph in the hot, hot sun.
Warm Welcome Cookies, Grand Union Station Hotel, St. Louis
They gave us warm chocolate chip cookies, just for checking in! I ate mine sans guilt. Do not spurn what the universe gives you. That’s my new motto.
National Conference on Addiction Disorders, St. Louis
What I learned:
· Some therapists think that having sex a week after meeting someone is abnormal and possibly a sign of sexual addiction. Ruh-roh.
· “Questioning” is a new Q in the LGBTQQ acronym.
· The words “limerence” (finally: a word for my teens and twenties) “cisgender” (I am a ciswoman), “buprenorphine” (controversial medication for opioid addiction) and “frotteruism” (aye, there’s the rub).
· Dialogue about spiritual abuse, or Religious Trauma Syndrome, is gaining ground, even in the DSM-V. And it’s not just about cults. From Rooted in God’s Love, by Ryan & Ryan: Spiritual abuse is a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.
· Characteristics of children genetically pre-disposed to addiction: novelty-seeking, chaos-tolerant, anxiety-intolerant, restless, irritable, discontent. What I don’t understand is how you can tolerate chaos but not tolerate anxiety. Doesn’t chaos produce anxiety? Also, isn’t chaos-tolerant a GOOD thing to be?
· PAWS is not just the name of the local animal shelter; it is an acronym for Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome.
· This quote: “Don’t punish people for having symptoms of the disease you’re trying to treat.” In other words, don’t kick people out of addiction treatment when they get squirrely.
Missouri Botanical Gardens, St. Louis
The Lantern Festival was somehow gaudy and subtle and fascinating all at once. On the way out, a parent in front of us was trying to herd his toddler in a straight line. We laughed with him, and Max started singing, “What do you do with a drunken sailor?”
Eero Saarinen’s Arch, St. Louis
On our descent from the top of the Arch in St. Louis, we shared a tiny pod with a family of three, and later that day I had the sudden feeling that they were not people at all but aliens in human suits. I can’t explain this feeling. Maybe it was because they were so talkative and jovial in a smug sort of way, as if they thought they were doing really well at what they had rehearsed.
When the woman monitoring the exit gate from the Arch in St. Louis said goodbye to us and then told Max to tie his shoe, Max, while bending to tie his shoe, yelled, “Don’t tell me what to do!” She laughed. I love that my partner is a natural endorphin-booster for friends and strangers alike.
The Embassy, Louisville
The Embassy is just about the fanciest hotel I’ve stayed in. Look at it! Let’s just say you get a lot more for your $$ in Louisville.
Fried Pickles, Louisville
After days of eating more French fries, potato chips, and varieties of white bread than I’ve ever eaten in so short a time, I vowed on our second to last day to take it easy. No fried foods today! Whole-grains only! But the restaurant we chose in Louisville had falafel wraps, and after days of trying to order vegetarian from conventional menus, I was so excited that I ordered it even though falafel is deep-fried and wrapped in a white-flour wrap. And then Max found out I’d never tried fried pickles and ordered them as an appetizer. And by golly, I ate about 7 of them. Turns out I love fried pickles.
Fake Chicken, Cincinnati
Louisville marked a turn in cuisine that continued in Cincinnati when the first restaurant we saw offered a list of at least 10 dishes made with “Gardein” “meats.” I ordered the fake chicken rice bowl—which even came with brown rice! Oh, Cincinnati!—and happily crunched on bright green snap peas, perfectly julienned celery, and matchsticked carrots.
(Note: On this vegan-friendly menu that marked all vegetarian options with a green “v,” none of the salads—not one—had a “v” next to it. None of the many restaurants we chose throughout the trip offered a vegan salad. How hard is it, chefs?? How can you design gorgeous stir-fry bowls and side vegetables without throwing together a bounteous all-vegetable salad? Why do you use arugula on hamburgers but only iceberg lettuce in salads? )
Waterfront part, Cincinnati
The Ohio River is gooey but hosts some beautiful parks and bridges. Like St. Louis and Louisville, Cincinnati’s waterfront park has geyser-like spigots and fountains for kids to run through, various water-pumping machines, a metal winged pig you can sit in while your parents pull on the ropes to make the wings flap, and a keyboard in the sidewalk connected somehow to chimes hanging above it so you can jump out a melody. The only problem with these parks is that it’s hard for a fun-loving adult to play with so many kids in the way.
Car Ride, I-70
Max does things on car rides my family never would have done, like get off an exit in the heart of major city rather than waiting until you get past it all to a simpler place. He drives fast but takes his time at pit stops. Have an 8 hour drive ahead of us? No matter. We can linger in our swanky hotel room and explore the Louisville waterfront before we leave. I like this attitude, although I couldn’t pull it off on my own. On my own, I want to hurry up and get home.
We listened to a Radiolab podcast on voyeurism that made me cry. We interrupted satellite radio now and then to sample Kraftwerk (new to me), Sparklehorse (new to Max), and Lana del Ray (new to both of us). We talked about our plans for our house and for future vacations. Max wouldn’t let me read to him. We didn’t play the alphabet game.
We listened to an Alan Watts lecture on meditation, and David Foster Wallace’s This is Water commencement address. We talked about anxiety and being addicted to anxiety and how anxiety is worse for me than all of the ‘bad’ food I might eat. I told him about the shift I experienced halfway through the trip, a shift to a darker mood that began so unexpectedly, as always, and about how this time I was able to pull myself out of it in a matter of hours. Max said I probably need to get good at that shift if we ever want to travel to Peru and try Ayahuasca.
Do we want to travel to Peru? Do we want to try Ayahuasca, that warm welcome cookie to the universe? That, my friends, is neither here nor there. Home, on the other hand, is always here. Which is where we are now. Here. Home.
Having discovered only recently that I could download games like Solitaire, Spider Solitaire, and Crossy Road to my phone for FREE, I’ve spent hours (hours!) swiping cards and tapping animals across busy streets. Spider Solitaire was the most addictive. I love putting things in order, so it makes sense that I’d want to play the game excessively during a time in my life that felt full of disorder, with the move, the job search, the uncertain future. Still, I managed to limit my Spider Solitaire time to the bathroom, using it in place of making lists of things to do or groceries to buy. Occasionally I’d slip, my hand reaching for my phone while I watched another episode of Marvel: Agents of Shield or when I crawled into bed at night, promising myself to stop after one more game. But looking back, my draw toward Spider Solitaire was well within the bounds of normal. I could set it down and move on without a profound sense of loss.
Truthfully, I had begun to find it boring. I won too many times, and my senses had grown weary of the monotonous black-and-white color scheme and the fake sounds of cards slapping against each other or whooshing into a pile.
I’ve known about Candy Crush since I joined Facebook many years ago and was immediately baffled and annoyed by the influx of requests to play it. But Max plays it, and observing from a distance the bright candy colors and hearing the sound palette of crunches, pings, bursts, and the deep, sexy voice of positive reinforcement (“Sweet!” “Divine!” “Tasty!” “Sugar Crush!”)—well, it was like witnessing the birth of a star after staring at a plain blue sky. Or like what I imagine an acid trip to reveal—colors, sounds, visions unlike anything in this material plane.
And it’s free. I love free things. So now, after a mere week, I’m up to level 47 or so, and I can’t stop. I stop when I have to: when my battery runs low, when my eyes weigh heavy with exhaustion, or when the game itself stops me because I’ve failed a level too many times in a row. But I do not want to stop. Or rather, I want to stop, I wish I could stop, but I’m afraid of the silence that will follow.
“I can’t stop playing!” I half-joked to Max, while I crushed candies in bed instead of thoughtfully and lovingly releasing the day to calm myself for sleep.
“Darling, darling, sweetheart whom I love so much…” he began.
“I don’t like the sound of this,” I said.
He knelt on the bed next to me, grasped my shoulders, and shook them. “You can do Whatever. You. Want,” he said, “How many times do I have to tell you this?? You can do whatever you want. Do what makes you happy.”
I am highly skeptical of this viewpoint for several reasons.
a) Does Candy Crush make me happy? Yes, it’s delightful, and yes, I look forward to playing it, and yes, it helps ease the sometimes awkward transition of figuring out how to live with the person I love without having to make every moment we’re together about us. But happiness? Does happiness usually have an undercurrent of guilt and fear that I’ve lost control? Is happiness wanting to slide the quilt’s squares forward and sideways to create rows of three or more? Last night, during my dream of people killing each other, I saw, overlaying the scene as if in another dimension, the Candy Crush board, people shifting and wiping themselves out in rows.
b) Serious people--spiritual people—do not play silly games to distract themselves from their thoughts. Instead, they allow the dark thoughts to rise so that they can sit with them, acknowledge them, and then let them go.
c) Won’t engaging in worthwhile activities make me happier in the long run?
“Being serious about life is a major strategy of the separated self, which recognizes its own seriousness as necessary to maintain its separation.” ~A Course of Love
“There might be many practical reasons to cite for your happiness’ demise, but in the loneliness that comes with its loss you will wonder, at least briefly, why the choice for practicality needed to be made. Yet if the separated self can look back and see that it chose being right over being happy, it will congratulate itself despite its unhappiness and say, ‘I did the right thing.’ It will see itself as victor over the foolish dreams of happiness and say how glad it is that it came to its sense before it was too late.” ~A Course of Love
There’s nothing like taking quotes out of context to support one’s own vices, but it’s quite true that my main goal in life has been to be both right and good, and that when I make a choice for duty—a choice that supports my daily list of ‘shoulds’—I feel proud and righteous, and have probably mistaken both feelings for happiness.
The other night, Max and I watched a documentary of Alan Watts, the philosopher and writer who spoke so eloquently about Taoist teachings. The documentary showed a contemplative, kind, gently funny man walking in the woods, practicing calligraphy, making traditional Chinese tea; if I didn’t know better, I would assume he lived his whole life this way, so centered and spiritual that only the most dedicated could follow in his path. But Alan Watts died of complications of alcoholism. I wish the documentary had included that. I want to know how Watts drank (in secret?), what he felt like when he drank (guilty?), and whether he felt his drinking compromised his spirituality. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Taoist teacher Gia-fu Feng, a friend of Alan Watts.
You’ve mentioned Alan Watts several times and I know that you’ve been with him when he was teaching. What was he like to be with?
You see Alan Watts was very creative. When he drinks he’s very clever. He was in a class, you know, at night time, he was all drunk. But his lectures were never boring. He was a tremendous entertainer. He said, “I’m an entertainer, I’m no Buddhist philosopher.”
Alan Watts actually died from alcohol, didn’t he?
Oh yeah. At that time he drank whisky by the bottle.
But how could that tie in with the Tao?
That’s from the Tao! The fact that he drank is totally in tune with the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove-his utter disregard for convention. One of the sages, a famous poet called Liu Ling, had a servant who followed him carrying a jug of wine and a spade. In this way he always had some wine to drink and his servant would be ready to bury him if he dropped dead during a drinking bout! It’s in the Tao. So Alan Watts’ drinking is quite Taoistic.
I’m not at all sure I agree that alcoholism can be Taoistic or that Alan Watts didn’t drink to avoid something about himself on some level, but it makes me wonder: if a vice is embraced and relished without guilt or self-hatred, would it look and feel different from addiction? In other words, if I reframe my obsession with Candy Crush as a Taoistic disregard for convention, will I feel better? (Yes.) If I play without guilt (instead of with the usual battle between guilt and a rebellion against guilt), will I tire of it more quickly? Let’s find out.
You can tell from the picture that it was a recliner. You can probably see the dark green fabric with diagonal rows of rust-colored flowers. You can’t see that it was especially worn on the seat, pilled and coarse. You can’t see the faint but caked-on brown patch of something I tried not to think about that had been there since I inherited it.
It was my grandma’s chair, one of a line of recliners in her eternal quest for a chair that would soothe her polio-sensitized neck and back. Polio notwithstanding, extreme sensitivity regarding physical comfort runs in the family, and it’s usually focused on one particular item that never seems to fit “just right”—whether it’s chairs, mattresses, shoes, or bras.
Like my grandma, I like a good chair. When I sat in her chair and pronounced it good, my grandma pronounced it mine. “I want to get a new one anyway,” she said, when I protested. I should have known better; she had recently given me her new globe because I said I liked it.
That was about 15 years ago. I still have the globe, too, even though the capital of Myanmar has since changed from Yangon to Naypyidaw.
I’ve had other chairs and couches in my various homes but have sat almost exclusively in the green chair, even when I grew restless, impatient with myself for being such a creature of habit. That chair was my station for all of my single years—the place I ate, the place I read, the place I wrote letters, papers, poems, and slobbery journal entries, the place I talked on the phone, the place I watched TV. In the many apartments I rented as a single person, I set up my chair station in a corner near an outlet and surrounded it with lamp, Kleenex box, pens, piles of books and notebooks, and my glass of water. When I sit down to work, I don’t want to have to leave.
If I dropped into the corners a raisin, a pen, a piece of popcorn, or a salad-dressing coated sunflower seed, they fell directly through to the floor, so that all I had to do was feel under the chair skirt at the side to retrieve them.
Aside from being a little ugly, the chair was perfect. But it sits now on display at CentrePeace, a Goodwill-type organization here in town, and I’m sitting in my boyfriend’s cabin in a non-reclining, too-soft chair that doesn’t hit my lower back in just the right way or have a place for me to lean my head. My phone is charging five feet away from me, my books and notebooks are stacked on the table across the room, and I can reach neither lamps nor Kleenex from here.
Is it worth it? I ask myself. Is living with the man I love and embarking on a new life together worth the loss of a good chair?
I could have kept the chair; we would have found some place to store it until we move to our new house next month. In the new house, I could have set up my station in the living room once more or put the chair in the basement. But we already have a collection of old furniture for the basement, and parents will give us used-but-like-new matching chairs and a couch for the living room, and it was time. The green chair was my life as a single person. I’m starting a new life now, and yes, it’s worth a thousand green chairs.
I sat in my chair on the morning of my move, surrounded by stacks of boxes and empty bookshelves. I appreciated how the chair curved into my back and neck just right; I fingered its rough, pilled fabric; I closed my eyes and told myself “this moment is all there is,” stretching my body and my chair into the moment’s eternal space.
My grandma now lives in a nursing home for those with Alzheimer’s; she has a narrow bed in the room she shares with another woman, and the only place to sit is an upright wooden chair with minimal padding. While most of my grandma’s family—her sisters, her nieces and nephews, her children, her grandchildren—would think that moving in with your boyfriend is sinful, my grandma wouldn’t care. She had a few boyfriends in the years after her first husband’s death and scandalized the family by spending nights with one of them. She would, I know, be happy for me.
I thanked the chair. I wished it well in its future. I may have cried just a little.
And then Max came, and we picked up the rental U-Box, and we put the chair in his pickup and dropped it off at CentrePeace on our way back to U-Haul, and that was that.
On my fifth birthday, I remember waking up in my top bunk, excited but sober in the face of a new year. When my mother came in to say good morning, I gave her my blanky, my dear, dear blanky, and said, “Put this away. I don’t need it anymore.” She looked surprised. “Are you sure, honey?” I was sure. I was five, after all. It was time to grow up.
“Contact with another human. Herb Asher shrank involuntarily. Oh Christ, he thought. He trembled. No, he thought. Please no.” – Philip K. Dick, The Divine Invasion
“You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone.” –A Course of Love
It’s true: there are a lot of people in the world. And like Herb Asher, I’ve had a hard time with that. I have felt the tightness in my stomach when sitting in a group, worried that I’m not saying enough or that I’ll say the wrong thing, worried that no one likes me as much as they’re pretending to like me, worried that they may have liked me at first but will like me less and less the more they talk to me.
I have skulked awkwardly around the edges of clusters of people talking, looking for a space to insert myself. I have quietly given up and left, going home to nurture my embarrassment into defiance. I am not like them, and I don’t need them anyway. I don’t need that person, I have scoffed, or that person. It’s the superiority complex of the shy, a defense mechanism against hating yourself.
I don’t want to be Herb Asher, alone in a pod on an alien planet, thinking I’m happy as long as I can be alone and fantasize about this or that celebrity. Instead, I want to learn to be alone with other people, alone in a way that means being centered and calm, unshaken by anxiety about what anyone thinks.
I want to forgive God. I want to be the social creature I was made to be. Plus, I want to do what I’m told, whether it’s to forgive God or be nice to others. I want to be good. I (“You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver says. But what does she know of life’s pressures, a lone poet and her wild geese?)
Geese are never alone. I want to be a goose, to travel with others in lovely symmetry without having to think about it too much. Just be a goose doing my goose thing with other geese.
“Therefore, ‘come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.’” –2 Corinthians 6:17
There’s something here beyond social anxiety, something to do with Bible verses like the one above, something instilled in me about the nature of difference and oneness. What’s going on here? What is the real fear?
Possibility 1: Fear of touching everyone inappropriately.
What if I relax so much that I lose my sense of self and lean into someone? Worse, what if I snuggle in close? I want to touch and be touched, and I guard myself against both, afraid it will go too far. It’s like the fear of crying because you might not be able to stop.
What’s too far? Sex, I suppose. In moments of panicky self-analysis I’ve wondered if I’m the kind of person who has to have sex with people to feel comfortable around them. But on a less weird and more practical level, I’m afraid I’ll misread cues and make everyone uncomfortable. Or maybe I’m afraid that if I lean into someone too long, I won’t know how to return to myself. So don’t go losing yourself with everyone, I tell myself. Pick one person. But what if that’s a catch 22? What if my fear of intimacy with the world keeps me from intimacy with the one person I’ve picked?
Last weekend, I attended my boyfriend’s uncle’s funeral. One of the family members sat next to me, crying. I wanted to express my sympathy with more than a look or a sad smile. I wanted to comfort her with affection. The women in the pew in front of me were patting each other’s knees. Could I reach this person’s knee without sliding forward in the pew? Would my touch be an intrusion on her private moment? I quickly reached out and rubbed my hand up and down her leg. She jerked a little, probably startled, and it took some quick thinking on my part to not snatch my hand away in embarrassment. Instead, I switched to her shoulder, but the damage was done. My ego grasped onto that leg rub and tortured me with it the rest of the day. That’s something a lover would do! Why rub? Why not just pat? Why such long strokes? Why are you allowed in public?
All of this is to say that I think my deepest nature is to connect and to comfort, and I’m afraid that if I let that part of myself free, I’ll be trespassing boundaries right and left and lose myself in the process.
Possibility 2: Fear of being like everyone else.
The fear of touching, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of looking stupid—these are but shadows of another fear: if I join the world, nothing will distinguish me or make me unique or special or better.
As a kindergartner, I learned that being separate—being preternaturally obedient, in my case—won me admiration from my teacher. Since (and even before) then, I’ve (mostly subconsciously) sought distance from the crowd of my peers. Whether by getting good grades, following rules, adopting a restricted diet, or simply being my genetically thin self, I have separated myself from the pack.
Self-help books and Myers-Briggs would label me an introvert. It’s easy to buy into this label and imagine myself deserving of special understanding. But labels are part of the separation that we imagine we must maintain in order to survive this world. Introverts can write as many books as they want, trying to get people to understand them, but in the end, that just creates further separation: us v. them.
If I stop separating myself, if I stop trying to be different or better, then what am I? And who do I think is going to love me more for my separation? God? That’s what I used to think, at least. Trying to be good separates you from the majority who don’t try so hard. And shouldn’t my sacrifice, my noble struggle for goodness, warrant special love, whether from God or people? If I give up that struggle, then what?
Possibility 3: Fear I’ll get stuck in illusion.
If I give up my struggle toward enlightenment so that I can ‘hang’ like a normal person, I might get stuck in the illusion instead of being able to transcend it. I’ll get caught up in other people’s problems, complaints, gossip, negativity. And because I still want to connect with people despite my competing desire to be different and better, I sometimes default to complaining a lot to try to make myself seem ‘down-to-earth,’ to make myself seem real. Which brings up my ongoing complaint: why all of this sitting and talking anyway? Why can’t we just play a game instead? Dutch Blitz, for example, is vonderful goot fun, and I can never get anyone to play it with me.
My new trick for handling social situations, adapted from this book by my friend Peter Santos:
Before a social engagement, protect yourself energetically. After a brief meditation to calm and center yourself, imagine your aura pulling in close to you and then imagine a circle of white light surrounding it. In this egg of light, you are perfectly safe. In this egg, you can relax and interact with people without fear. In this egg, you can look past people’s ego-driven behavior to their true nature. You can see that you are One with everyone.
Does it work? Sometimes. When it doesn’t, when I do something awkward like rub a crying person’s leg, I tell myself, “let it be.” I tell myself to stop punishing myself for my awkwardness. Instead, just allow it. Accept it. Trust that I will be forgiven.
And finally, here’s the full paragraph from which the beginning quote is taken. I love it for how it knocks the wind out of me.
“You must forgive reality for being what it is. Reality, the truly real, is relationship. You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone. You must forgive God for creating a shared reality before you can understand it is the only one you would want to have. You have to forgive this reality for being different than you always imagined it to be. You have to forgive yourself for not being able to make it your own, because you have realized the impossibility of doing so. You have to forgive yourself for being what you are, a being who exists only in relationship. You have to forgive all others for being as you are. They too cannot be separate, no matter how hard they try. Forgive them. Forgive yourself. Forgive God. Then you will be ready to begin learning just how different it really is to live in the reality of relationship.” –A Course of Love
I’m knocking at Aamilah’s door, here to meet her and begin tutoring her in conversational English. Aamilah is Saudi Arabian, and as I stand here outside her door, listening to her move about inside as the minutes pass, I wonder if not answering the door right away is some kind of Saudi cultural thing and whether I should keep knocking or text her or just wait.
Here’s a cultural thing: cake, dates, almonds, rice snacks—all laid out on her coffee table. It’s a hospitality I’ve encountered before, when I lived in the Philippines and when I visited my Italian college friend’s home. It’s lavish, and it worries me. How can I ever deserve all of this or even adequately appreciate it? Should I have brought something to contribute?
Aamilah (not her real name) is young and pretty, with long dark hair and lovely caramel skin. We smile at each other and spill out a jumbled mix of introductory words and syllables. We’re nervous. She fills our tiny teacups with what looks like hot miso broth, cloudy and a light yellowish color. “It’s Arabic coffee,” she says. “Have you had it?” I haven’t. I can’t figure out what it tastes like.
“Is it regular coffee? I mean, from coffee beans? Caffeine?” I adjust my questions, seeing her confusion. She doesn’t know the word ‘caffeine,’ and it takes our next four meetings of halting conversation and Google searches for me to figure out what exactly it is: real coffee but with the addition of saffron and/or cardamom. That’s what it tastes like, I realize: cloudy saffron water.
“We to like, uh, to eat the dates? With the coffee? It is, uh, tradition?” she explains, indicating the dates. These are not the usual Deglet Noor dates of East Coast grocery stores, tough and sugary. These dates are small, glossy, and so soft that they melt into honey on my tongue.
Aamilah moved here with her husband and daughter while her husband attends school, and they’ll return to Saudi Arabia to live after he graduates. I have no problem understanding her English, but she stumbles often on vocabulary and mixes up syntax. She often catches herself switching genders, calling her daughter “he” and her husband “she.” I’ve taught and tutored writing for many years, but this is my first time tutoring conversation, and I’m not sure whether I should keep correcting her or just talk with her, asking questions and supplying and defining new words as necessary. I decide on the latter. The point is communication, and I want us to enjoy ourselves.
And so we talk. Our conversations drift from our families to Saudi Arabian weather, landscape, and culture, including dating and marriage, good cities for shopping (Riyadh and Jeddah), and a brief and, on my part, ill-advised foray into the criminal justice system (let’s just say that she had never heard of public beheadings). At our second meeting, we come to the topic of religion, and religion is where we remain, as I have all kinds of questions about Muslim practices, holidays, beliefs, and sects, and she has all kinds of questions about “Trees-chi-ans,” including the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
“So you have three gods?” she asks, when I try to explain the Trinity.
“Well, no, it’s like three parts of God.” I’m trying to explain the belief that Jesus is God. She looks highly skeptical. “Like a rope,” I say. “You know how you can take apart a rope, that it has separate threads? But it’s all one rope?” I feel especially pleased with this metaphor, and she nods.
“Okay, okay,” she says, but I can tell she isn’t convinced. She has heard of Jesus, “Isa” as she calls him, but she believes he was a good prophet who will follow Muhammad when they both return to earth during the end times. “Islam, One God,” she says, holding up her finger. “One.” I try to explain that Christians also believe in one God, that Jesus is part of God, and, when she asks why we have two Bibles, I try to explain the connection between the Old and New Testaments. I explain the practice of animal sacrifice for sins in the Old Testament and how Jesus’s death in the New Testament represented the ultimate sacrifice that covered all sins past, present, and future, making possible our direct connection to God without mediation by temples and priests.
“Isa came back to life?” she asks.
“That is what Christians believe,” I explain. “Because he was God…so he could bring his physical body back to life.”
I feel both amused and chagrined to be sitting here explaining the Gospel like I was taught to do in Sunday School. Other than a brief spurt of evangelical zeal when I was 8 and “witnessed” to a friend in school, I never “shared the good news” with anyone, at first due to shyness and later to a growing seed of rebellion against something I didn’t know how to define. Now, so many years later, I face a challenge my Sunday School teachers would envy—to share the Gospel with a Muslim. I worry a little that I might accidentally convert her. And if I did, what would her husband do?
I admit to an irrational fear of her husband, based on nothing except the knowledge that he is a practicing Muslim and a man. “How is she doing?” he asks me at the end of our session. “Should I reward her? Has she done well?” He’s teasing, and I laugh politely, but when I say, “Yes, she’s doing great, wonderful!” I say it with a tiny lurking fear that if I say anything else he might beat her. I know better. I can blame my reaction on the media coverage of Muslim countries and on my fear of male religious authority in my own tradition. But the fear feels deeper than culture and religion, older than even this lifetime. Wherever it came from, I brought it to this world with me.
Anyway, I could never convert Aamilah even if I wanted to. She loves her faith. She shows me pictures of Mecca during Ramadan. She explains the daily prayers and her study of the Qur’an. She shakes her head dismissively when I ask about the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. If she knew the word “apostate” she would use it to describe the Shi’a. The Shi’a are misguided. They have left the true faith.
“The Qur’an talks about Isa and Mary,” Aamilah says, and shows me the passage in its beautiful Arabic script. This comes after I have tried to explain the Catholic belief that Mary remained a virgin her whole life versus the Protestant belief that Mary married Joseph after Jesus was born and had several more children with him. “Yosef?” she says, confused. She has never heard of him. “Virgin?” she asks, the word clearly foreign, clunky in her mouth. “You know,” I say, “uh…did not have sex yet.” I say the word “sex” as if it is clearly foreign, afraid that maybe it will offend her. “What?” she asks, and so I repeat myself several times until she says, “Oh, yes! She was made to have pregnant by God! Yes, the Qur’an says this.”
An angel had to tell Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, I continue. Otherwise, he would have divorced her. Aamilah interrupts me. “In-jeel?” she asks. “Yes, angel,” I say. I try to explain that angels are messengers of God. “Ah!” she says. “Messengers of God! Yes, I know this. The Qur’an—in-jeel? The Bible—in-jeel?” What a lovely idea, I think, books as angels. But when I try to explain the difference between message and messenger, the conversation breaks down. Allah doesn’t have angels, apparently. How do you describe an angel—a ‘being of Light’? What does that mean?
Aamilah begins to press. My explanations of Christianity have been tempered with “Christians believe.” She wants to know what I believe. But how can I begin to explain my nuanced, New-Age, Buddhist version of Christianity? She has never heard of Buddhism. “Bood…boodism?” she tries out the word. I’m at a loss. “We can talk about that next time,” I say.
But the next time, she has written on her iPhone a history of the prophet Muhammad; I hunch over the screen with her, correcting her grammar and learning that Islam most certainly has an angel tradition. The angel Jibreel opened baby Muhammad's chest and took the black bits from his heart. But Aamilah pronounces angel “angle,” while Injil is the Arabic word for Gospel, the message—thus the confusion of the week before. The “angle Jibreel” visited Muhammad again, when the boy had grown, to give him the Qur'an, the inspired words of Allah. I imagine Jibreel as a corner, surrounded by a host of angels bent acute, obtuse, perpendicular.
In this moment, Aamilah is herself Injil, a holy message, her excitement about her religion and her love for her Prophet and his wife Khadija shining in her eyes.
I love the way I believe in, too, but working with Aamilah has made me even more aware of how strange these beliefs are, ungrounded in tradition or history. Christians would look at my version of Christianity as Aamilah sees the Shi’a Muslims, a dangerous misinterpretation of the one true religion. How can my scrap-heap of beliefs ever compare to her faith, so grounded in community that entire cities grow silent to hear the call to prayer sung from the spires of the mosque? How can I explain a belief system based on love?
“Do you feel, uh…love for Allah?”
“Oh, yes!” she nods. “I love Allah!”
“And do you feel love from him, that he loves you?”
“Oh, yes!” she says. “He loves us if we pray and are good Muslims.”
I don’t ask “What if you’re not good?” I will not press. This woman seems content, happy, grounded. She will return to her country this summer and travel to Mecca with her family for Ramadan. She speaks of this month of fasting, prayer, and devotion with longing. God is great, the call to prayer begins. Allahu Akbar. God is great, God is great, God is great, God is great. They break the fast each night of Ramadan with dates, she tells me. I eat another date. This date is great, I think. Praise God.
 Here’s what happened. At a lull in the dialogue, she asked if I had any questions about Saudi Arabia, and the first and only thing I could think of was that a man I dated for awhile had lived in Saudi Arabia and seen public beheadings. He described the experience to me, clearly still shaken by it. I shouldn’t have asked Aamilah about it, but it did lead to some new vocabulary for her as I tried to explain the prison and execution system here in the U.S. I drew a little courtroom, with stick-figures of judge, lawyers, and jury. I drew a stick man in a prison. I spelled out the words ‘criminal’ and ‘death penalty’ and ‘prosecute’ and ‘represent.’ I asked if she ever watched “Law & Order.” She hadn’t.
Growing up in a conservative, evangelical Protestant scene, I was taught to pray “not my will, but Thine.” No way, I thought. What’s the point of prayer if you’re going to let God do what he wants to anyway? Asking for God’s Will also terrified me; as far as I could tell, God’s Will demanded suffering. God’s Will wanted to destroy all the “chaff” of my own desires and teach me humility. God’s Will was a nasty little soldier running around trying to ruin everyone’s lives for their own good.
Based on the books I read and people I knew, I was afraid that God’s Will for my life would involve one or more of the following:
· To eat the pus of lepers (to teach me that serving others is even more rewarding than not eating pus)
· To be a missionary killed by the natives (to teach me, posthumously I guess, the joy of giving my life so that others might be saved—because once natives kill you, they’ll surely repent and read the Bibles you gave them)
· To be tortured for my beliefs (to teach me that I can get through anything if I sing hymns)
· To hit my head when diving & become a quadriplegic (to teach me that I don’t need arms and legs to do God’s Will; I can learn to draw beautiful pictures with my teeth, for example)
· To accidentally fall in love with an old, fat man (to teach me that appearance isn’t important)
· To never marry or have a family (to teach me that my happiness comes from loving God, not from the fulfillment of my most cherished lifelong dream)
· To have a severely handicapped baby (to teach me humility)
· To die (to teach me that this world is nothing and that God is everything)
Clearly, the God of my childhood was worth running from. And His Will? Will was his vengeance, his hit-man, his thug.
A friend told me recently, “You’re still thinking about God as being Out There. But God’s in you, God is you.”
A book I’m reading says to think of God as “an electric current, endowed with supreme intelligence. This ‘electric current’ is there, in you, around you, outside of yourself.”
Sounds great, right? If God is part of me, what’s to fear? God’s Will is, essentially, My Will. But the fear quickly returns. In this version of spirituality, it’s not God who sabotages you: it’s your fear-energy. Your unconscious fears disrupt the “God-flow” and manifest stuff you don’t want. Can’t have a baby? Your unconscious fears of having children are shutting down your uterus. Can’t meet a loving partner? Your unconscious belief systems about partnership are working against you. Blinded by a chemical spill at age 8? You contracted for this experience before you were born, hoping, perhaps, for heightened senses and wicked martial arts skills.
In other words, your problems are your fault; you can work to expose and correct these unconscious influences, but in the end, your crappy circumstances are of your own making.
So that kind of sucks. It’s like saying, “That dog will attack you if you show any fear.” If you can’t calm your fear, it’s your own fault if that dog bites off half of your face.
The Christ Within talks about using the God-flow in us to transform any of our life circumstances or situations into a “state of grace,” in which the holiness in us blesses that situation and we are led, through gentle, intuitive impressions, to bring about that situation’s highest good.
If we surrender a particular situation to the God within us, promising to let go of our sense of limitation, our false perceptions, and the will of our personality, promising to listen for and follow our feeling nature, we will thus enter a state of grace and invite into our lives our highest good. Well, okay, I thought. Maybe I can do that.
Maybe God’s Will is the deepest and purest part of myself, and maybe this Will’s urges are not in service of self-sacrifice but of self-actualization and self-expression and a surrender of all anxiety about what other people think.
Maybe God’s Will is a flowering, a full manifestation of my particular personality in this particular lifetime. Or maybe God’s Will is simply to experience—to be here in this world of illusion and to embrace it lightly, gracefully.
In the end, bad stuff doesn’t come from God. It comes from fear. But instead of getting stuck in the fear of what my unconscious (or the collective unconscious!) will manifest, I can surrender it all to my highest good and focus instead on what I can access: the conscious fears. For example, my anxiety often compromises my well-being: I avoid painful conversations, I try not to ‘bother’ people with my problems, I say yes when I’d rather say no. The process of changing this default, of living in a state of grace rather than a state of tension, can feel difficult and frightening. After all, “God’s Will” might be that I actually ‘speak my truth’ or, worse, say no. But I can trust the outcome if I trust that God’s Will is part of me, that it manifests only freedom and wishes for me only joy.
 St. Francis of Assisi
 Elisabeth Elliot’s husband
 Countless martyrs I read and watched movies about as a child.
 Joni Eareckson Tada
 Couples who said things like, “I wasn’t attracted to him at all, but then I got to know him.” It would be so God, I thought, to trick me into falling in love with a man who grossed me out. Another church message: the more attractive person of a couple is holier than the rest of us who care about looks.
 A few single church women I knew and tried my hardest to avoid, afraid they’d rub off on me.
 I would like to apologize for this fear to the parents of disabled children. I would also like to believe that I would whole-heartedly love and take pride in any child who came into my life.
 We shouldn’t talk about God because He’s everywhere, my 3rd grade classmate said, pointing at her vagina. Even here.
 The Pathwork of Self-Transformation, by Eva Pierrakos
 A CD from the Sacred Garden Fellowship
 This is a very mild example of the effects of fear. Maybe another post will delve into the whole, “why do bad things happen?” debate.
I’ve mentioned A Course in Miracles (ACIM or The Course, henceforth) before, and we return to it here with Lesson 5 of the workbook: “I am never upset for the reason I think.”
We are asked to take a few moments each day to notice what is upsetting us and apply this lesson. For example, “I am not angry about police violence for the reason I think” or “I do not hate this sticker on my apple for the reason I think.” The upsets can be big or small and cover all manner of forms (anger, worry, hatred, jealousy, depression, etc.). Although we perceive difference in size and manner of upset, the Course insists that “form does not matter” and that “Applying the same idea to each [upset] separately is the first step in ultimately recognizing they are all the same.” In other words, even the smallest upset is as disturbing to our peace of mind as the largest.
My initial reaction to the lesson was anger: it sounds too similar to that parental accusation of overreacting. It’s not that bad, Cindy. You’re not thinking clearly. But I trust ACIM, so I dove in (after all, I am not angry about this lesson for the reason I think). Here’s a sampling of what I learned:
Upset #1 (“small”): Brushing my teeth.
I do not like to brush my teeth. I do it anyway, twice a day, and I do it well. Nine out of 10 dentists are cautiously impressed with how well I clean my teeth. Impressed at the lack of plaque and cautious because apparently I brush so vigorously that I have caused my gums to recede. For this reason, they (the dentists) have convinced me to invest in an electric toothbrush that stops when you press it too hard against your teeth. But the electric toothbrush forces me to brush for two solid minutes before it shuts off. Kimmy Schmidt advises taking difficult situations 10 seconds at a time because “you can stand anything for 10 seconds.” Some might argue that 10 seconds of waterboarding or other torture seems longer than 10 seconds of teeth-brushing, but I don’t know—maybe the suffering we endure fills our capacity for suffering, whether it’s teeth-cleaning or being repeatedly brought to near-drowning.
Anyway. I deal with my annoyance by moving around. If I can use that two minutes to accomplish something other than cleaning my teeth, it feels more bearable. So I wander from the bathroom to the living room and open all of the blinds (or close them at night). I straighten piles of books or papers. I’ve tried to water the plant but end up spilling either water or glops of toothpaste. Still, every morning and evening I have a moment of soft despair, knowing I will have to brush my teeth again.
I am not annoyed by brushing my teeth for the reason I think.
If you tell me I’m not upset for the reason I think, I’ll immediately feel challenged to list all of the possible reasons. See? my list will say. Nothing gets past my unconscious!
So here’s why I think I’m annoyed, starting at the surface and going deeper:
1. Teeth-brushing adds up to four minutes a day of complete boredom (four and a half, if you include flossing, which I do, by golly!).
2. There is no end. I will have to brush my teeth every day and every night until the day I die with all of my teeth intact.
3. My annoyance covers up a fear that I’m not doing it right, based on a childhood experience of not being able to brush away the red stains from the dental-education pills they gave us in school.
4. Brushing my teeth forces me to be in the moment, reminding me of my fear of the moment, of getting stuck there and never having fun again.
5. Brushing my teeth is, at its most basic, my effort to be good. I have labored under the call to goodness my entire life. I loathe obligation and yet am too fearful to break the rules.
Knowing ACIM, the real reason probably has most to do with number 5. Fear comes from lack of love and is the root of all negative emotions. I only brush my teeth because I think I have to brush my teeth in order to be good, but in truth, I am already perfect, even if my teeth fall out. Better yet, my teeth are part of the illusion of form, and although I may think I’m bound by this illusory world’s rules of cause and effect, in reality I can transcend them. If I believe in my perfection fully, I can think my teeth into perfect health. But because I still labor under the delusion that I have to brush my teeth, I have to brush them, and this inability to transcend form feeds my unconscious anger and fear, which surfaces as an ongoing annoyance.
Done and done.
Upset #2 (“large”): A video going around Facebook:
It’s a Candid Camera-type video of a man pretending to be homeless in LA and offering people money as they walk by. The actor, a healthy, fit-looking man wearing a muscle shirt/hoodie, holds a cardboard sign that says, “No one has ever gone poor by giving.” Several people swear at him when he offers them $10 and tell him, in various ways, to piss off. One woman engages with him politely at first and then seems to get upset when he offers her money, “Are you kidding?” she says, and walks away. Two people kindly try to give him money instead. He almost gets into a fight with a passerby at the end, who gets miffed when actor accuses him of being pretentious.
The point the video wants to make is that people are mostly greedy and arrogant and should instead be giving and humble. My reactions to it cycled quickly through the following:
1. Holy moley, people are mean!
2. What an interesting sociological exercise!
3. I’d better make sure I’m nice to everyone all the time.
4. Um, this guy pretending to be homeless is kind of self-righteous.
5. Yes, this guy’s just being a confrontational jerk.
6. Stupid video.
I’ve remained stuck on reactions 4-6. If I’m not angry about this video for the reason I think I am, then why do I think I’m upset?
· I think I’m angry because self-righteousness in all forms puts me in attack mode. It makes me close off and become argumentative even when I agree with something on principle. For example, I agree that generosity is great, but if you tell me I should be more generous, I’ll suppress my urge to kick you in the shins by laying out an airtight case for being selfish.
The man in the video has a self-righteous message on his cardboard and has that infuriating attitude of “look-at-me-being-so-humble.” Plus, he’s aggressive with people (in that “I’m-not-tryin-to-hurt-anybody-so-if-I-make-you-want-to-fight-me-that’s-on-you” way). In other words, he’s out to get a reaction. He created this video to deceive people into revealing their “true nature,” anticipating, clearly, that people would respond negatively. When you go into the world expecting confrontation, that’s probably what you’re going to get.
· I think I’m angry because I worry that someone will secretly tape me someday and that I’ll reveal my meanness.
· I think I’m angry because if this ‘homeless’ person had tried to offer me money, I would have half-smiled and murmured ‘no thanks’ without making eye contact; if he had kept pushing me to engage with him, I would have felt angry and guilty the rest of the day.
· I think I’m angry because I wish I were better than that. I wish I could fearlessly engage, like the woman in the video who immediately kneels down and talks to him. She’s not afraid that she’ll be mugged, harassed, or stuck in a conversation that will keep her from getting to work on time. Some might say she acted foolishly, without thought for her safety, but I admire her. She didn’t expect to get hurt, so she didn’t. She didn’t separate ‘my’ world from ‘your’ world; she jumped right in.
· I think I’m angry because I don’t want to have to be perfect all the time in order to be considered good.
I would never tell someone to “F*** off” for trying to give me money, but that doesn’t mean that the men who reacted that way are bad people, either. Most people don’t like it when a stranger accosts them, no matter the reason. Most of us don’t like being preached to or made to feel like we aren’t good enough. Some of us are able to swallow our impatience and be polite, some of us aren’t—and this probably changes for each person depending on the day and time.
· I think I’m angry because the actor is trying to vilify people for having a genuine, honest reaction. Their reaction represents where they are on their journey, how they feel about themselves, what they are afraid of. We don’t have to judge it. We don’t have to feel morally superior. We can just let it be.
· I think I’m angry because the actor’s self-righteousness brings back childhood anger at a self-righteous church, at self-righteous Christians. I think I’m angry at self-righteousness because it makes me feel guilty, even when I haven’t done anything particularly wrong (see footnote #5).
· I think I’m angry because seeing people in conflict reminds me, maybe, of the lack of love that I fear in myself and in others.
These seem like pretty good reasons to me, but let’s look at this ACIM-style.
A Course of Love says, “All fear is fear of relationships and thus fear of God.” Thus, the actor is afraid. The men who swore at him are afraid. Watching the video, I am afraid. None of us are connecting with the other. None of us truly want to connect with the other. Our fear begets anger.
I don’t want to give up my anger at this actor because I don’t want to try to understand him. If I try to understand him, I might be sucked into believing his view of people, including me: that we are greedy and proud. So, in the end, I’m angry because I’m afraid I’ll be judged and will deserve judgement.
Only when I believe myself and others beyond judgement will I be able to respond to videos like these with neutrality and non-judgement.
There. Take that, Lesson 5. I will humbly receive my A+ now.
Final analysis: I may have a slightly antagonistic approach to some of these ACIM lessons. Also, I have about 5 more hours until I have to brush my teeth again.
 Pronounced ACE-em.
 Of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” now available for streaming on Netflix. Quick review: After 3 episodes, I’m not sold. But I like Ellie Kemper and Tina Fey enough to give it more time.
 That means the opposite of what I mean, but you know what I mean.
 When in doubt, feel guilty. (That’s my default. I’m working on it.)
 A sequel of sorts to ACIM.
Last Thursday, I came home after a therapy session knowing that something old had awoken, something dark and shifty and vague, and I knew that its massive bulk would surface soon, but all I wanted to do was eat dinner, watch Call the Midwife, and read myself to sleep with an easy, fun Jennifer Crusie novel. Don’t get into this before bed, I thought.
I slept fitfully, knowing I’d have to confront this thing the next day, knowing I’d have all day at home alone to let it rise and beach itself, stinking of depths and slime.
I woke tired and heavy at 6 a.m. and spent the whole day crying, journaling, crying. It kept coming up and coming up, like waves of nausea. It brought with it some actual nausea, too, my body trying to pull reaction from my gut, trying to get it out, get it out, get it out and wash it up on the sand for a closer look. Allow it, I thought—but my rationality was slipping fast, and allowance began to feel like powerlessness, like I had lost control and couldn’t find my way back. It was awful.
I’ve cried before, I’ve felt hopeless before, but I can’t remember that I ever let it go so far; usually, I stop myself, afraid of getting lost and afraid of that inner critic telling me to shake it off and stop being pathetic. This time I surrendered (that’s a nice word that doesn’t quite capture the violence of the process—but on some level, surrender is what was happening). I even, as shameful as it felt, called my therapist and asked if we could meet again. Two days in a row?? Who does that? You’re going to waste money because you’re too weak to fix this yourself?
What was all of this about? It’s not important. I’ll just say that a 2-minute phone conversation with my boyfriend as he was driving home from work cleared it all up. Two minutes, people. Two minutes. To sum up: 4 hours of pre-crying, a bad night’s sleep, 12 hours of crying, pages of journaling, a throbbing headache, a bunch of money on extra therapy, [INSERT: 2-minute conversation with boyfriend], another day and a half of recovery from headache, exhaustion, and an undoubtedly shredded aura.
You suffer until you realize you don’t have to suffer.
Buddhists say that, A Course in Miracles says that, my boyfriend says that, I say that, my therapist would certainly agree with that. But by golly, there’s nothing to make you feel more like a failure than seeing the truth and knowing it’s the truth but not being able to reach it.
I told my sister about the ordeal. “Yep, that’s how we are,” she said.
And that is also true, but again, only partially comforting. It might be how I act sometimes, but it’s not who I am. That suffering mess is all ego; it’s all part of the illusion. But again, that’s truth without comfort, truth without love.
Why am I writing about this? Why am I revealing some of my worst? I guess I’m hoping/betting that I’m not alone. When I was in the middle of my crying day, I felt so completely isolated (I’m such a mess! Something is wrong about me! I’m beyond help! I’m the only person like this in the entire world! etc.). It’s a pretty rotten place to be. It would have been nice to read something like this, to know that I'm not off the charts in terms of being human.
Case in point: after the last time I had a slight overreaction to something in our relationship, my boyfriend showed me this meme. Maybe I should have felt angry that he would make light of my feelings. But this simple, silly, fake diary excerpt made me feel so much better. You’re not alone, it said. So this blog post is for anyone out there who might have similar breakdowns from time to time. It’s okay. It’s not ideal, but it’s part of the process. Honor the process if you can. But even if you can’t, don’t worry. We’ll all eventually, even if it takes several more lifetimes, grow into enlightenment.
Speak truth in love, we’re told. So here’s my attempt: yes, it’s my ego that creates and perpetuates such messes, that wreaks such havoc. Ego causes the pathetic suffering mess, and ego wants me to use words like “pathetic suffering mess” to describe myself afterward. The truth is that I don’t have to suffer if I don’t want to, but the truth in love is that it’s okay to suffer if that’s all I know how to do sometimes—if I am choosing to suffer, it is only because I do not yet trust love or understand it. And that’s okay, too. Because life is about experience, and wherever we are is exactly where we need to be.
 The voice of the ego. More on the ego/soul/spirit trio later, if I feel like it.
 Well, not all of it, but if we stick with the beached sea animal metaphor, I can say that the creature lost enough weight that I could easily pick it up and toss it back into the sea, knowing it won’t go as deep this time or seem quite so frightening the next time it visits.
 More on auras later, perhaps. As of recently, I like talking about auras.
 More on A Course in Miracles later. Maybe. Expect nothing.
 When I say “love” here, I don’t mean romantic or relationship love. I mean the all-abiding love that is in and around and of me, all the time—the love that IS me and IS you and is the only real thing in this world.
This past week, trees were massacred in my backyard, which now looks decimated, plucked, ruined. Massacred and decimated are strong words. But you’re supposed to be angry when trees get cut down for no good reason, right? You’re supposed to send them Reiki or something. You’re supposed to call the borough and voice your moral outrage.
The tree-cutting took place last Friday, and since the trees covered several properties, I’m guessing the tree-cutting crew was borough-hired to clear the wires that swoop from the sides of this house through and beyond the neighbors’ yards behind us.
Wires matter. Healthy wires are, I realize, essential to the modern world. But the wires and trees have peacefully co-existed here for years; in the year I’ve lived here, the electricity has never gone out for more than two seconds, and branches have never fallen.
Regardless, the men came in and cut, and chainsaws and shouts shattered the air all day. Trees and pieces of trees fell on the wires, slapping them against the side of the house; they fell on and broke the clothesline; they clattered and banged on the plastic roof over the outside stairs. By the end of the day, the yard was littered with tree scraps and 18 (yes, eighteen) fresh stumps.
It’s not my backyard. I’m just renting, and I’m moving in a month. Plus, I never sit on the back porch from which the picture was taken. But anger lies in wait for a bandwagon, even if that bandwagon is rumbling through an alternate reality. If I DID live here, if I DID sit on the back porch…!!! Plus, I can be angry on behalf of the neighbors, who have lost all privacy and shade and beauty. I can be angry on the behalf of the trees, who have lost their glad green lives.
I could hope, in this anger, that those men feel the loss of light in their lives that murderers must feel. I could picket the borough to protest the killings. I could use words like “killings.” But trees come and trees go, and the men were just doing their work, swearing and yelling and laughing and being in the sun and the fresh air of it all. What’s the point of adding anger to the world?
Instead, when I went to the hairdresser’s today, I asked her to trim the back to its usual boy-short length but keep the front a little longer. I wasn’t thinking about trees at the time, but let’s pretend I was. Let’s pretend the lesson of the trees was this: think twice about how much you value convenience over beauty. Don’t raze the landscape when you could just trim it back now and then. Because of the trees, let’s pretend, I’m growing my hair, inviting some hassle back into my life.
That’s a fake lesson, but the anger feels fake, too. I’m not that angry. Here’s the thing: I like trees very much. I even like to put my hands on them when no one’s watching and try to feel their life energy. But when I’m preoccupied, I don’t notice them. When I walk up the stairs to my apartment, rushing to get home, I barely see the backyard.
And so it comes down to this, perhaps the only truth here:
Chainsaws cut down 18 trees.
Tall and lovely trees?
I wish I could remember.